Tuesday, June 30, 2009
"An open letter to the parasites I managed to pick up in West Africa this summer," from McSweeney's:
Anyhoo, just wanted to let you know there are no hard feelings over your unwanted breach of my lower tract. Aside from the occasional cold and a sinus infection once in high school, I've never actually had a real disease before, and I think this counts. Well done. This way, at cocktail parties for the rest of my life (or at least until something better comes along), I'll be able to nonchalantly mention that bout of hookworms I had in West Africa once. People will be intrigued by the suggestion of exotic adventures in my past. They'll think I'm very interesting and want to be my friends. It might go something like this:
STRANGER AT A COCKTAIL PARTY: These shrimp croquettes are a little overcooked, don't you think?
ME: Obviously you've never dealt with a case of intestinal parasites in post-conflict West
STRANGER: You're fascinating.
West Africa's Achilles Heal, a great project about drug trafficked in Guinea Bissau is running as a series on the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. It's especially relevant right now as people in Guinea Bissau vote, or in many cases, don't vote. The photos from this project are awesome, but I'm not web savvy enough to figure out how to re-post since they're in a gallery, but you should head over there and check them all out.
In just nine hours Guinea Bissau had lost both it president and the head of its army. Why so much violence? Was this double assassination the result of an old rivalry between Vieira and Tagme, or was it something more? The army’s spokesman, Zamora Induta, declared that the president had been killed by a group of renegade soldiers and that assailants using a bomb had assassinated General Tagme. He said there is no connection between the two deaths. Of course, nobody believed that this was so.
And if this is all making you salivate over the thought of heading to West Africa, here's a job you can apply for, via my brother Grant's blog Mo'dernity, Mo'problems:
The RA will manage a large quantitative survey of the impact of paralegals in prisons and police stations in Sierra Leone as implemented by a local NGO, Timap for Justice. The evaluation is funded by the Open Society Justice Initiative (www.justiceinitiative.org/) and administered by the Centre for the Study of African Economies (www.csae.ox.ac.uk) The nationwide survey will be spread across 15 – 20 sites and will require that the RA spend a significant part of time per month at field sites throughout the country. In addition the RA will perform a variety tasks including: managing survey teams, cleaning and analyzing data, coordinating with local partners, and ensuring the successful execution of the evaluation.
(And just putting this out there, but working a job like this will likely involve way more cute kids than assassination. And more statistics than cute kids. And definitely enough parasites to be fascinating.)
Shelby Grossman tells the story of her friend Jonathan, and a story about Liberia:
As donor enthusiasm for Liberia wanes, as it inevitably will, the presence of international development groups will fade. Their trademark large, white SUVs that have become a staple to the roads of Monrovia will start to disappear. The 15,000-person strong UN peacekeeping mission with its thousands of additional civilian support staff has already started to reduce its numbers. This dwindling attention from the international community will have many implications for Liberians. Those most cynical of international intervention argue that Liberia’s sovereignty will be restored. Liberians will be able to make their own choices. Farmers won’t have to grow bulgur wheat just because some UN agency wants them to. Liberians will develop their country on their own terms.
But the pull-out also will mean a loss of well-paying national-hire jobs. The many university graduates working with the UN and international non-governmental organizations will have to find a job in a country where there aren’t many.
Saturday, June 27, 2009
Thursday, June 25, 2009
I've spent the better part of the last three days waiting to take a Liberian senator's picture. The Capital Hill building is a strange place. It looks like a place that was once gaudy-fancy, and is now just decrepit-gaudy. Even though Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is Africa's first female elected leader, women still can't wear pants in the building. The cafeteria is full of political types drinking beer and arguing before noon, and one of the ladies selling sodas was watching a clip of porn on repeat on her phone. I'm hoping tomorrow will be the big day and I'll actually get to take a picture of the senator instead of just the empty cafeteria. The senator knows why I'm there, waiting, and he knows that I know why he's delaying. His handlers have promised it will happen tomorrow, that I might even go to his house for lunch. I'm not holding by breath, but I am crossing my fingers.
Wednesday, June 24, 2009
Though the rate of HIV/Aids in Liberia is lower than other places in Africa, at just 2-5%, fourteen years of only recently-ended civil war means that outreach, treatment and prevention work has had a late start. Many fear that the epidemic will explode in post-conflict Liberia, as people regain freedom of movement and the economy recovers. A small group of dedicated people have banded together and formed the Light Association to fight the spread of HIV/Aids. The president of the Light Association Joe-Joe Baysah, the first man to publicly declare his HIV status in Liberia, describes the work he is doing there.
Monday, June 22, 2009
Thursday, June 18, 2009
Wednesday, June 17, 2009
I first came across Paul Sika's photos on the blog Africa is a Country and was immediately transfixed by how he transformed scenes that seemed so familiar to me into something brilliantly technicolor and radiant. I emailed him last week and asked a few questions and he was kind enough to fill me in with a little bit of information about his work for Context Africa.
Context Africa is new series on this blog that highlights projects that go above and beyond daily content making to tell a story of a place in its context. I also hope create an ongoing dialogue about what it means to tell contextual stories in Africa. There's a lot of daily news out there that is factually incorrect, slanted, or stereotyped. But, there are also a lot of journalists committed to telling a different kind of story.
See previous Context Africa entries:
- Andrew Rice on memory, murder and Idi Amin
- Tim Hetherington on the culmination of ten years of taking pictures in Liberia
- Rob Crilly on how to write about a place as contentious as Darfur
- Nicholai Lidow on post-conflict surfing
- Jina Moore's Q and A about forgiveness in Rwanda
How did you get started as a photographer and how did you look evolve into what it is now?
In 2003 when I was studying English in London in order to start my studies in Software Engineering, I happened to realize I was in love with cinema. Indeed I was walking down Tottenham Court Road on my way home when I got mesmerized by the Matrix Reloaded trailer that was playing in the window. Right there on the spot, when seeing that Agent, in the famous Highway scene, jumping from one car and landcrashing another, I realized I wanted to make movies. I thought to myself "is it this type of imagination that is required to make movies? Because if it is then I think I am well equipped." I then started to think about my past, how I was very attracted to video games which I was playing nearly all the time.
I love storytelling too. I remembered that once I was the Game Master at some voice Role Playing Game, and I would create the story and narrate live. I even managed to convey fear to the players in bright daylight. It was an amazing experience. So from that life changing moment, I wanted to enter a filmmaking school instead of Software Engineering. The ones I had discovered were too expensive for me and I entered Westminster University for the S.E. course. After a year I wanted to drop out. But in the end I did not and finished with Distinction. Still very much interested in cinema, but not wanting to jeopardize my studies I bought a still camera with it in mind that I would explore the still image as it is the unit of the moving picture and when I am done with S.E. I would get into some film school.
On the technical side of things, can you tell me a bit about how you create the sort of Technicolor dream space that your photos occupy? How much of the work happens during the snapping and how much during postproduction?
Well I am a digital technology advocate. In fact when I was considering starting photography, I investigated the type of technology around and trust me if digital did not exist, I would not have entered the field. I wanted quick and accurate results. I love immediate feedback so I can orientate my choices. I love to move at the speed of thought.
I use Photoshop, one of my favorite ever tools and the main one anyway. I over saturate my colors. I also paint over them. In a way it is not easy to describe the process because it is to me so instinctive. When I am in postproduction, most of the time I don’t realize I am thinking because it is going so fast.
The characters you see on the photos are all present at the time of shooting. I do not add any person in post, at least for the moment - that is because I am a director. I am a Film Director using a still photo camera.
Do you consider your work editorial or creative? Or some kind of hybrid?
I do not see Editorial and Creative separately. I am pushing for more creative editorials.
I think it is time we open the door for more daring, creative, researched, accomplished editorials. Some have started to do so but I do not feel it is widespread enough. We must surpass ourselves and create imagery we will remember for a long time. I am in fact thinking of doing some photo essays with my style of photography.
You’re currently based in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire. How did you end up there? Where are you from?
Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire is the place I saw my first sun rays back in 1985.
But you know what, I do not see myself as limited by borders and frontiers.
I am Global. That is my nationality: Global. My other nationality: Entrepreneur. My third nationality: Creative.
Can you describe the different phases of your work?
Overlapping one another a little bit, the three main categories on my web site are Photomaking, Illustrations and Monochrome, which more or less represent the 3 great periods of my photography.
As a complete beginner I was doing a lot of monochrome, yet very much interested in colors. And if you take a good look at the monochrome pics, you will see that they are photos of life happenings, events/things/people you could meet/live/encounter yourself. In that period I was a witness of my surroundings. Not really putting my own judgment/vision I was a complete receiver.
Then if you look at the Illustrations, the images are getting some scrambling treatment. They are mixes of several photos, of different kinds of subjects: people, nature, objects, animals.... some start to have a surrealist/fantastic feel to them. At this stage, I started to insert/inject my vision.
Then Photomaking was the last/latest stage where I am without mercy projecting my own vision onto the photo especially, with the latest photo series such as At The Heart
Of Me with Murielle Nanie (Miss Cote d'Ivoire 2008). The set was our most ambitious one. We built the wall, carved out the heart, painted on the walls.
People around me were telling me I was putting too much money into the production of just a photo. I didn’t follow what they said.
Monday, June 15, 2009
A lot of people ask me about how I take pictures, so I’ve finally written this out. When reading this, keep in mind that I am not a casual picture taker. Casual picture taking is great and wonderful and can document a place and your experience. Nothing can communicate as much as an image and no one appreciates images as much as those who try and make them regularly. I feel it’s important to note this because what I’ve written about here is not necessarily instructions for casual picture taking. But, I still hope that both casual and less-than-casual readers will take something away from post.
I use a Canon 5D. I have three lenses: 17-40, 50mm fixed, and 24-105. I use the 50mm most often. After I’ve taken pictures, I sort, caption and batch edit in Photomechanic. Then, I process them in the Camera Raw module of Photoshop CS4. I will do final editing in Photoshop if necessary.
I’d love to have an additional camera body (possibly a 5DM2) and either a 24 or 35 fixed lens.
What’s more important than my equipment – than anyone’s equipment – is approach. This is how I work. It’s the only way that makes sense to me. It won’t work for everyone, and what’s more important than adopting a method from someone else is developing your own.
I don’t use a telephoto lens in almost any case except for news photography. Generally, I want to use a short lens and stand right next to someone. I don’t want to grab a quick picture inconspicuously from across the street – I want to request it. I want people to know I’m there and I want to engage with them. I treat people with respect.
I think that ultimately has more of an impact on the final look of my images than the type of gear I use.
I start by asking for permission to take photos. Sometimes this is a nonverbal exchange – I will look at someone while I gesture towards my camera as a question and wait for them to either nod or shake their head. Other times, I talk with people for a while before I take the photo.
Most people say yes. A lot of budding photographers will tell me they feel uncomfortable asking to take someone’s picture or that they’re not sure how to do it. I’d say you just have to start. Just ask. If the answer is no, move on. What a lot of people don’t realize is just how often permission is granted when it’s requested respectfully. Most people will say yes.
Start small to build confidence. Do you like kids? Start with them. Think really old men are the most interesting people on the planet? Then start there. The hardest place to start is large groups of angry or disenfranchised young men. I avoid them as much as possible since it’s just not my thing.
It’s important to identify what “your thing” is.
Some people don’t want their photos taken. In that case, I don’t take their photos. Most of the time, there’s someone standing right next to that person who will agree to have his or her photo taken. If I’ve asked someone who really doesn’t want their photo taken, and there’s some specific reason I really want to take that photo, I’ll often hang out a bit and chat. Ask about the family. Ask about the village. And then a bit later ask again if I can take the photo. Sometimes the answer will still be no, but sometimes people change their mind.
It’s also important for me to explain why I want to take the photo. There’s certainly a misconception that photographers make tons of money selling photos of Africans abroad. I tell people I don’t make money off of the majority of my images – which is 100 percent true – and that I’m here to take a picture to tell a story. In Liberia, I tell people that I want to share photos with the outside world to show that Liberia is no longer at war, that people are living their lives, that things are getting better. This appeals to a lot of people who innately understand how misunderstood they are.
For me, it’s also very important not to promise anyone anything. If there’s one thing that I wish other people who take pictures in the developing world would do, it would be this. I don’t promise people a copy of the picture because I can’t be sure I’ll get it to them. I don’t promise them something will change when the world knows their story since most of the time, nothing does change. And if it does change, and even if or when my picture is a catalyst for change, it’s not always straightforward. People always remember unfulfilled promises. If you promise someone something, you must bring it. If there’s even a small chance that you won’t be able to follow through, then don’t make a promise.
Some people will ask for money. I don’t give people money in exchange for having their picture taken. Last year, I took about 25,000 photos. It’s financially unsustainable for me to pay people. And, it’s not right for the way I want to work. It changes people’s motives and it changes my interaction with them. It changes the dynamic is a way that has a negative effect on how the photo will look. If someone demands money in order to agree to have their photo taken, I just don’t take their photo. Once I make it clear that I will not pay, most people agree to have their photo taken anyway. Some don’t. That’s okay too.
Once I have permission to take someone’s photo, I will usually take one or two stiff and formal portraits. Most people here associate pictures with standing up straight and looking directly ahead, smiling just a bit. I’ll take the stiff ones, and then the person will think I’m done and relax a bit. I hang out more. Get to know people. Eventually, they forgot that I’m around and go about their business. And then the snaps are more candid and reveal a bit more of who they are. This is what makes a good picture. If the person looks back at the camera, it’s with a different level of comfort and ease than the first frame or two.
I ultimately value the way an image can communicate that words cannot. I try to take pictures that are true to a specific person’s circumstances, place, and story. My photos are not of continents or histories, but of people living their lives amid those forces. I spend time with people, many of whom invite me into their homes and all of whom invite me into their lives. I release the shutter and hope for an image that can capture a convergence of light, emotion and circumstance I have been given permission to witness.
Friday, June 12, 2009
I went to Robertsport, a two hour drive from Monrovia, and took some photos for BBC. Here's the link to it on the Beeb website.
For many years, people have associated Liberia with its brutal civil war. But now, people are discovering its potential in an unlikely area: surf tourism.
Many of the Liberian surfers who play in the waves at Robertsport were just kids when the war raged throughout the country.
Robertsport, a sleepy town two hours' drive north-west of Monrovia, is Liberia's surfing capital. A lodge called Nana's has opened to cater those looking to ride the waves and escape from the capital for the weekend.
Nate Calhoun is just one of countless development workers drawn to Liberia by the waves. He and his partner hope to set up an NGO in Robertsport to ensure the local community benefits from the growth in the surf tourism industry.
Over the past couple of years, many of the surfers who have visited Robertsport have left a board or two behind so more Liberians can learn to surf.
Spectacular sunsets are a regular occurrence in Robertsport. The area gets up to six meters of rain annually and is on the only coastal rainforest in West Africa.
Most of the locals in Robertsport work as small-scale fishermen who brave the waves in hand-carved wooden canoes. Many hope an influx of surf-based tourism will boost demand for fresh fish.
Many young people in the town see surfing as their meal ticket. In post-war Liberia, few job options exist, especially in a rural area like Robertsport.
The beach at Robersport is pristine and undeveloped, with miles and miles of unexplored perfect waves and sandy bottom breaks.
Thursday, June 11, 2009
By Glenna Gordon - Special to GlobalPost
Updated: June 11, 2009 07:22 ET
MONROVIA, Liberia — Cora Taylor holds up a brown Barbie doll outfitted in one of her creations: a long dress and headdress in brightly printed African fabric.
“I wanted something else, something that looked like me,” said Taylor, whose full name is Cora Ann Elizabeth Evto Taylor Ferguson, though most of her friends just call her Miss Coco.
It’s hard for any doll to compare to Taylor, though. With hairdos that change more often than the weather, from a big afro to a slicked back ponytail that reveals a subtle streak of gray, arched eyebrows and a beauty mark on the top of her right cheek, she looks elegant even in a short-shorts green terrycloth jumpsuit and daisy-adorned flip flops.
Taylor, a Liberian who lived in the United States for most of the 20 years of intermittent civil war that shook this small West African nation, moved back to Monrovia in 2004.
During the war, nearly 1 million people fled, 1 million were displaced and more than 250,000 died. In a country of only 3 million, it’s safe to say that everyone suffered.
The war devastated Liberia. Now, six years into the rebuilding process, things are getting better but the process is tedious. During the war, the municipal water and power grids were completely destroyed, as was all basic health, education and other infrastructure.
Everyone who could leave did leave. Taylor left.
“When I first came back, I cried,” said Taylor, crying a bit once again. During the war, she lost her brother and a score of other relatives. Just outside her living room window is a pile or rubble that used to be her aunt’s home.
“I missed everyday life,” Taylor said, of her time in America. “Here, there are different kinds of stress today. But even if I don’t have a cup of water, all is still well with my soul.”
Though Taylor works a full-time job at a government office in town, she uses the living room of her modest but stylishly decorated home as a studio. With an abundance of energy and creative flair, Taylor began creating Liberian fashions for Barbie dolls.
"I'm not color struck, but most stores just have white dolls and I wanted something else," explained Taylor, who describes how when she visits the U.S. she goes from store to store looking for the black versions of Barbie dolls, and at one point had dolls with three different shades of brown skin. She can't find those anymore.
"These are not Barbies. These are $1 plastic dolls from Japan." She buys them at discount chain stores in Texas, Georgia, Maryland and anywhere else she can find them. They look like Barbies, with trim figures and startling bright blue eyes. They aren't ordinary Barbies, though. They have brown skin.
Spread out over two small black wicker coffee tables is the studio where Taylor makes traditional African clothes for the Barbies out of lapa fabric.
Lapa is a brightly colored and patterned cloth commonly sold in markets and by tailors everywhere in West Africa. Across the continent in East Africa, similar cloth is called kitenge. These days much of the fabric is manufactured in China, although it is still called “African.” Taylor makes miniature outfits out of the cloth to dress the dolls. She's bothered that the dolls aren't more "authentic" (her words) but she sews away anyway.
Like many Liberians, Taylor represents a culture spanning two very different continents. She considers herself as much American as she does Liberian. She makes sense — and art — out of it all. The dolls are a lively cross of the two continents. She sells her dolls for $50 to her Texas friends and $25 to mainly NGO types in Monrovia.
Since Taylor first dressed up a Barbie look-alike in lapa in 1992, she estimates she has sold at least a thousand dolls. She used to stock gift shops and boutiques across the U.S. with her mini-masterpieces, but now she is selling from her Monrovia living room and the occasional opportunity out and about town. She is planning to launch a website to sell the dolls.
Most recently, in March of this year, Liberia hosted an International Women’s Colloquium that drew dignitaries like the president of Finland, Tarja Halonen, former Irish president Mary Robinson, Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi’s daughter and others, as well as nearly 1,000 delegates. Taylor sold her dolls at one of the exhibition booths just outside the venue. She sold about 60 of them, though is most proud of her sale to “Madame Ellen,” Liberia’s president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who is the first woman to be elected head of state in Africa.
“Ellen bought two, dressed in colloquium lapa,” Taylor said, referring to fabric printed for the occasion with the Liberian and Finish flag on a purple background. “And I gave her a third one for free!”
No two dolls are ever alike, which is partially a result of Taylor's creative process. She never formally studied art, and to this day says most of her fashion sense comes from her mother, who is “the most beautiful woman I know.”
When she was young, her parents would travel and bring her back paper dolls and plastic dolls. “But the clothes were never enough!” Not surprising coming from Taylor, whose current closet includes several dozen pairs of shoes, a score of hats and more outfits than can be counted. “I grew up in a family of glamour girls,” she added.
When she was young, she started making more clothes for her dolls from scraps of fabric and bright paper.
Today, she still uses scraps of fabric. Sometimes she sews the fabric, and sometimes she uses a hot glue gun and scissors to shape the dress. But regardless of how the outfit comes to life, the process always starts with the hot glue gun. She glues cotton balls to the dolls' chests and butts to give them more “African” figures. Then she cuts all the hair off so that she can cover their heads in lapa wraps. The outfits are always unique mini-versions of the styles well dressed ladies wear out and about town.
But to Taylor, being an African woman is more than just glamour. “When I think about the African women I know, I feel strength. They are all real women with direction, looking towards the future.”
Wednesday, June 10, 2009
Tuesday, June 9, 2009
Friday, June 5, 2009
I spent about a week in Harper. It was an important experience for me as I try to push myself beyond taking pretty pictures or interesting pictures towards taking pictures that document and tell stories. I'm not sure I achieved that goal, but I do feel satisfied about the effort I put forth and my determination to try and be a better photojournalist.
Currently, I'm putting up more photos from Harper on glennagordon.com. Since this is a work in progress for me and I intend to go back to Harper and make additional images, comments and thoughts are most welcome.
Liberia's past and future have been and continue to defined by an antebellum American power structure transported to Africa. That all went up in flames - literally - during Liberia's civil war in a way that has eerie similarities to the American south and our Civil War.
Harper is an amazing place. It's a two day drive (or one hour flight) from Monrovia, and was once the capital of an autonomous state called Maryland, the original home to the freed American slaves who later founded Liberia. Now, all that's left of the power structure put in place is vestiges of burned out mansions, a stone mason temple filled with stagnant water, and tributes to a small town boy who made it big, former President Tubman.
Liberia's story is very much about its relationship to America, and how freed Americans slaves created a social hierarchy here that was an underlying factor in the two decades of destruction and war that are still very much visible today.
Wednesday, June 3, 2009
Today (and by today, I mean the past few days), in random news from Liberia:
Charles Taylor, warlord extraordinaire: Judaism's newest convert.
Tim Hetherington, photographer extraordinaire, previously featured in Context Africa, talks about his Liberia work with the New York Times.
Alfred Lomax, surfer extraordinaire: profiled as Liberia's first hope at professional surfing, in the London Times.